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The term "powwow" comes from an Algonquin word for "medicine man" or "he who dreams." A powwow gathers people together to celebrate life. It does this through song and dance, ceremonies, rituals, and displays of hospitality and unity. Its songs and dances evolve with each generation. Powwows are not a re-enactment of a cultural past. They are the artistic and spiritual expression of an evolving people.
Various stories tell about the powwow's origins. An Anishnabe (Ojibway) legend describes how the Original Man was lowered to Earth and walked carefully through Creation; his movements would be emulated in the dancers' steps. A Lakota story tells of a council of nations that convened to seek peace during the mid-1800s. The council ended with games, dances and songs.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certain Aboriginal cultural and religious activities became illegal in the United States and Canada. Driven underground, the traditional music survived and the powwow repertoire grew as a result. Big drums became more widespread.
When the powwow emerged from hiding in the 1920s
[www.canadiancowboy.ca/features/powwowtrail.html] (accessed May 28, 2007), it spread throughout Aboriginal communities. Its social elements became more clearly defined. For the non-Aboriginal world, the powwow came to define Aboriginal identity.
Songs and dances often come from dreams or from observing nature. For example, the northwestern Ontario jingle dress dance came from a man's dream. In it, he saw a healing ceremony involving a young woman whose dress bore rows of tubular metal cones made from tobacco tin lids. As she danced, the sick person was healed.
Early on, elements of the powwow retained their traditional identity and protocol. Onlookers could tell dancers' origins by their dance style, beadwork patterns and colours, and regalia (outfit).
Contemporary dancers incorporate bright designs and materials such as sequins, ribbons, silks and beadwork that appeal to them and that catch the judges' attention in competitions.
The women's fancy dance and the fancy shawl dance broke with tradition: both have physically demanding footwork. In traditional dance, women were not to lift their feet off the ground because of their symbolic connection with the Earth and their role as bringers of life.
Traditional powwows were sponsored by families or communities. There is no prize money and usually nothing is sold.
Social powwows are now hosted by Aboriginal student organizations, friendship centres and other groups promoting cultural awareness and education .
In contrast, large commercial or competition powwows attract thousands of participants and offer large money prizes for dancers and singers. Powwows may include contemporary music performances, rodeos, baseball games, fairs, concerts and trade shows.
Major gatherings include the Schemitzun World Championship of Song and Dance in Connecticut, the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico
www.gatheringofnations.com/powwow/index.htm (accessed May 28, 2007), and the Canadian Aboriginal Festival in Toronto www.canab.com/mainpages/events/powwow.html. Commercial powwows have gone international, from Hawaii to Europe.
Regardless of their type, powwows enforce appropriate behaviour, particularly respect for elders and veterans. Drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and pets are not allowed in the arbour area, also known as the dance area.
Typically, a powwow opens each day with the first song during the Grand Entry. Dancers in full regalia enter the circle from the east, near the drums and the announcer's podium, a tradition ascribed to the Sundance and to Wild West shows.
The dancers are led by a colour guard of Aboriginal veterans who carry the eagle staff and the Canadian and American flags. The flag song is sung, followed by the veteran's song and the sneak-up song (a warrior's song).
The host drumming group may lead the singing, or a guest drumming group may be invited to sing the Grand Entry or the closing song, when the colours are taken out of the circle at the end of the day or of the event.
The powwow princess, representing the virtues of the people, leads in other veterans and the elders. They are followed by the head male dancer, leading the male traditional dancers. Then the head female dancer leads the female dancers. Behind them are the male fancy dancers, followed by the female shawl dancers and the children (or tiny tots). Depending on the nature and location of the powwow, head dancers sometimes enter together.
Other events may vary, depending on the type of powwow or the geographical region.
Competitive dancing is judged on a point system, depending on dance style and age category. Contestants are judged on their regalia (outfits), and on performance and style. In traditional dance, a good dancer interprets the dance through precise movement (the dancer usually tells a story or follows traditional dance steps according to the particular dance). In the physically more demanding fancy dance, participants must keep pace with the drum beat.
Drummers are judged on their singing ability, range, knowledge, cohesion and their performance of any song at a moment's notice, when called upon by the master of ceremonies.
A traditional community or family powwow ends with a feast and the distribution of gifts -- an honouring ceremony, often a memorial for a family member who has died. Such a "giveaway" may take a year to prepare. Generosity is a spiritual value, balancing the material with the spiritual world.
All powwows, as well as any gatherings in which the drum is used, have closing ceremonies.
Pitch: the height or depth of a musical tone
Falsetto: male singing in an extremely high range
Register: a range of tones of an instrument or singing voice
Vocable: singing with a non-word, such as "tra-la-la"
Bustle: in Aboriginal dance, a circular ruffle of eagle feathers
Roach: a headdress, originating from warriors' regalia and often worn by traditional or grass dancers. It may be made of moose or porcupine hair sewn into an upright row with (usually) two upright eagle feathers placed in the top centre of a headpiece that trails down the back of the dancer's neck.
A song typically falls into two parts. The lead singer starts the song with a high-pitched cry that tells the group which song they are to sing. The group echoes the opening phrase and then moves into the first half of the song. At the end of the song's first half, there is a slight pause; then the second half begins.
After the singers have sung the song through, the lead singer repeats the opening phrase and the group repeats the entire song. The lead singer repeats the opening phrase of the song's second half as a "tail." The song's end is signalled by a series of distinct beats.
Powwow singing repeats the melody from verse to verse but the pitch changes from high to low. Singers call the verses "push-ups" or "rounds." The lead singer starts the song at a high pitch. The other singers repeat the opening phrase as a group, and then move to a lower pitch.
Songs from the Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes regions of the United States and Canada are called "northern style" and they use falsetto pitch. "Southern style" songs, from the territory south of the Oklahoma/Kansas area, are sung in a lower register.
Traditional songs usually have lyrics that tell stories of the hunt or war expeditions and other stories, or of the song itself -- lyrics may allude to how the song was created. Other songs characterize historical deeds in battle such as the "Little Big Horn Victory Song," originally recorded by a South Dakota-based group, The Porcupine Singers [www.rambles.net/porc_tradlak98.html] (accessed May 28, 2007). This song recounts the Lakota version of the battle of Little Big Horn.
"Straight songs" are often composed of vocables and are used as a warm-up for fancy dancers, who dance in a straight upright posture -- hence the name straight song. Songs with vocables for the lead and with lyrics for the second part are known as intertribals.
Traditional songs are based on ceremonial or society songs. They have evolved to include flag songs, memorial songs, honour songs, veterans' songs and victory songs. They have a regular rhythm and melody, and combine words with vocables.
The drum is sacred. It represents the Earth or the circle of life. A large drum is made of a hide membrane stretched across a circular wooden frame. The drum is usually a little less than a metre across and about two-thirds of a metre high. It is set on a blanket on the ground or on a stand.
The male singers sit around the drum, beating with round-headed drumsticks and following the lead and second-lead singers. These singers are called drummers, singers, drum or drum group.
Female singers stand in a circle around the drummers, symbolizing both protection and the origin of life and song. They come in during the second half of the song, but they do not sing lead.
Drummers set the rhythm for the song. They also use honour beats -- individual beats, usually four -- to signal to the singers and dancers whether the song is to continue or end.
The small hand drum has only one membrane stretched over an octagonal or round frame that ranges from 15 to 45 centimetres in diameter and is about 10 centimetres deep.
Many of the dances originate from observations of nature, particularly birds such as the sage grouse.
The dance imitates the mating rituals of the prairie birds. The drumming style symbolizes thunder, which represents the voice of the Great Spirit.
This dance is sometimes called the single-beat Crow hop, as opposed to the double-beat, in which the dancer imitates the movements of the sage grouse. The "hop" refers to the cadence of the drumming and some of the dancers' movements, which are more akin to loping movements than hopping in the physical sense of the word. The dance name is derived from the Crow people of Montana, where the dance originated in the early 20th century.
The grass dance originated in the Omaha Hethuska society and is sometimes called the Omaha dance. Originally, the dancers prepared the dance area by using ceremonial dance steps with sweeping footwork that packed down the tall grass. The original regalia of the Lakota grass dancer included braids of sweet grass tucked into the dancer's belt. Contemporary outfits use long, brightly coloured yarn fringe, without a bustle. The footwork has become more intricate. This is one of the more physically demanding dances in the powwow dance repertoire.
Jingle Dress Dance
The jingle dress originated as an Anishnabe (Ojibway) healing ceremony. The women's dresses are distinctly decorated with rows of tiny cone-shaped bells or jingles. At the onset of the dance, deer hooves were sometimes used. The slide or side step requires the dancer to slide her feet to the rhythm of a syncopated double beat, sometimes without lifting her feet off the ground.
Men's Fancy Dance
The men's fancy dance originated in Oklahoma in the 1920s and requires total body movement with intricate footwork and physical agility. Dancers wear bright colours and upper and lower bustles. Described as a young man's dance, the physically demanding movements for the fancy dance require endurance and originality in the presentation.
Men's Traditional Dances
Men's traditional dances vary from nation to nation and from one region to another. Dancers generally wear traditional buckskin outfits with bustles, and carry shields, dance sticks or eagle staffs. At one time, the dancers' outfits would represent their nation of origin, often depicted in beadwork or quillwork patterns and styles of outfits and head gear. For example, dancers from the plains may have worn eagle feather bonnets with geometric patterns on their outfits while someone from the woodlands might have worn a clan symbol such as a wolf's head with floral patterns in their beadwork.
The sneak-up dance is a warrior's dance in which stories are told by the movements. The dancer rises up and steps in time with the beat of the drum, which grows steadily faster and then stops abruptly. The fast stop also tests the dancer's ability as a performer who keeps in time with the drum from the first to the last beat.
Straight Fancy Dance
Straight fancy dance is a warm-up for fancy dance competitions. Straight songs are often composed of vocables and are used as a warm-up for fancy dancers who dance in a straight upright posture.
Women's Fancy Dance
Women's fancy dance began in the 1940s in Oklahoma and was brought north by young women attending boarding schools in the 1950s. At first, dancers wore men's dance regalia complete with roaches and bustles, but later they adopted an outfit of dresses and shawls.
Women's Fancy Shawl Dance
Women's fancy shawl dancing emerged in the North during the 1960s. The women wear brightly coloured cloth dresses accented with ribbons and beaded accessories. They may wear a single upright eagle plume or a beaded crown. The basic movements involve fast forward and backward foot shuffles. The shawl draped over the dancer's back and arms takes on a floating or flying motion.
Women's Traditional Dance
In women's traditional dance (also called buckskin, cloth buckskin or southern buckskin), dancers wear buckskin regalia with traditional designs of beadwork, quillwork and cowry shells. They wear jewellery made of bone, shells and elk teeth. In some dances, they stand in one place, rocking up onto their toes and back down and turning in four directions in rhythm with the drum beat.
Of Sioux origin from the Central Plains, the rabbit dance is one of a very few made for couples who dance together with hands interlocked. The dance spread to the eastern Iroquois who adapted it within their own framework of dances, accompanied by the water drum and cowhorn rattle rather than the big drum or hand drum found in western regions.
Originally a winter social singing ceremony using hand drums, the round dance started in western Canada among the plains Cree. It found a place in powwow competitions and has been adopted across the country by many nations. The syncopated beat played on the hand drum is accentuated by the drummer dragging his finger across the back inside of the drum as he plays the second beat with the stick held in the opposite hand. The vocable indicates the song, the (sometimes humorous) lyrics concern love or relationships. The round dance can be performed by one hand drummer or a group of 12 or more singers all with hand drums. It is a social gathering with ceremonial elements and protocol.
The first documented use of mechanical recording equipment for ethnological research occurred in 1890. Jesse Walter Fewkes [www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr015.html] (accessed June 1, 2007), an anthropologist with the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, made recordings on wax cylinder phonograph records.
Aboriginal cultures are working to preserve and regain their musical traditions. Aboriginal people have preserved traditional songs and ceremonies. They continue to keep these elements safe from outside intrusion.